Democracy requires free and credible media. This was among the critical messages that U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Global Public Affairs Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau delivered during a recent visit to Central Asia.
Trudeau visited Uzbekistan, Washington’s strategic partner, and Kyrgyzstan, which the Biden administration sees as “the light of freedom” in Central Asia despite continuing setbacks and a wave of recent detentions of activists and civil society figures.
In an interview with VOA, Trudeau said her time in the region was devoted largely to candid conversations with the leaders of governments and non-governmental representatives.
The situation looks “very different when you’re in Bishkek or Tashkent,” she acknowledged, “because the issues that citizens and governments face, you understand better when you actually can sit and talk.”
“In Uzbekistan, it was really focusing on [President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s] reform agenda,” Trudeau said. “We also had very clear conversations on media freedom and the issue that’s not only facing Uzbekistan, but the United States — disinformation.
“We spoke very frankly about Russia’s unjust and unprovoked war in Ukraine, and we understand Uzbekistan’s view on that. We talked about their principled and non-aligned status on that,” she added. “We also talked about how we can deepen our partnership. Uzbekistan is a vitally important country for us.”
Frank conversations with Kyrgyzstan
Trudeau claims a strong relationship with neighboring Kyrgyzstan as well.
But even as Kyrgyz media quoted her calling this part of Central Asia “the light of media freedom,” supporters of the current regime were calling for the closure of media outlets that are critical of the government. October saw mass arrests of activists and bloggers.
“We’ve made our views known,” Trudeau said of those moves. “I think conversations like this need to be very frank. What we have said to our partners in the Kyrgyz Republic is that democracy is best served with a vigorous and open media.”
She still believes that Kyrgyzstan leads the way in media freedom in Central Asia, emphasizing continuous U.S. assistance.
“What we come back with whenever we go on trips is sort of a laundry list. … Here’s something they want to explore more in partnership with us. So, the onus also is on us to make sure that we meet those asks.”
‘A partnership of equals’
In Uzbekistan, along with officials and the non-governmental sector, Trudeau met with Saida Mirziyoyeva, the president’s eldest daughter, whose office highlighted in a statement that the U.S. official was not there “to preach.”
As one of the top diplomats responsible for promoting American values and communicating its priorities, Trudeau told VOA that “this is a partnership of equals” and that Washington does not have all the answers.
“When we sit around a table, we need to listen as much as we talk,” she said. “The U.S. needs to approach it with humility and understand that we have as much to learn as we do to share.”
Trudeau praised Mirziyoyeva for “her expertise and her passion for her country.”
“We talked about women’s rights and gender issues. We talked about the importance of media freedom. We had a great conversation on disinformation and how it impacts citizens in the U.S. as well as citizens in Uzbekistan. … There are no borders to disinformation. So, we need to address this collectively. How do we make sure our citizens have the tools they need to be able to identify it, to be able to get the facts?”
Usually, U.S. diplomats avoid engaging the family members of leaders, especially in regions such as Central Asia, where corruption and nepotism have deep roots.
But, Trudeau said, “I was very comfortable meeting [Mirziyoyeva] as head of her foundation, which is doing remarkable work not only on women’s rights, lifting women business owners, but also on media freedom. You know, this is someone who’s very passionate and very engaged on the subject. And I’d like to think the United States will always meet people who care about the issues as much as we do.”
When VOA asked whether the U.S. government sees Mirziyoyeva as a relevant person in the Uzbek political system, Trudeau’s answer was, “absolutely.”
How does the Biden administration envision working with Central Asian governments on countering Russian disinformation? These countries are still rated among the most closed societies, and democratic reforms, despite promises, have been slow to take hold.
The Kyrgyz government closed a TV station this year, accusing it of posting an anti-Russia video, while in Uzbekistan, authorities have been pressing media outlets to maintain “neutrality” by not publishing or airing anything questioning the Russian war in Ukraine. Uzbek journalists tell VOA that the government is not as restrictive on war coverage as it was at the beginning of the conflict, but they confirm widespread self-censorship.
“No one’s got an easy answer on this,” said Trudeau, acknowledging the challenges in fighting disinformation.
“We’re all seeing it. So, as we sat in Bishkek and Tashkent, we said, ‘What are you seeing? How is that impacting your average citizen? Where are they getting information? Who do they trust?’ And one thing we heard again and again is media literacy, making sure that people understand how they themselves as citizens can be armed to make those determinations on what’s true.”
Central Asian journalists and bloggers who met Trudeau appreciated the outreach but posed their own questions about the depth of the U.S. commitment: Will Washington follow up? What kind of support can the media community expect from Washington? Will there be more funding, more assistance and development programs?
What they will see, Trudeau said, “is continued consistent engagement being responsive to countries’ needs. …”
“As the information environment shifts, we need to collectively meet that demand, because journalism and media freedom are the front line of democracy,” she said. “This is a war space just as much as land, sea, and air. So, the question is ‘How are we arming ourselves to be able to adapt?’”
This article originated in VOA’s Uzbek Service.